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Comedy and crazy come home to roost

Theater Review: 'Nobody Here But Us Chickens'
by: ©2008 OWEN CAREY, Michael O’Connell (left) and Damon Kupper strut their stuff in Third Rail Repertory’s “Nobody Here But Us Chickens.”

Really, nobody should be laughing at the characters in the three one-act comedies that represent the latest effort from Third Rail Repertory Company.

The stories, by the late British playwright Peter Barnes, are about people with mental and physical disabilities. But the noble hope that we would be above such things came apart entirely on opening night last weekend.

First, there is Barnes' audacious play, which is really more like a series of extended sketches. Each, impressively, is attached to some subversively original thinking about our assumptions regarding human frailty.

The result is a cast of characters that are, in the ultimate tribute to the differently abled, precisely as imperfect and laughable as the rest of us.

But to get there, Barnes gives us the least cerebral of all forms of humor: sight gags. And they are whoppers. The playwright's real genius is not so much the unpredictable arc as the shocking setup.

After a curtain speech by a pair of animatronic chickens, the first play opens with a man (Damon Kupper) who is clearly at odds with the conventional world. He's isolated - institutionalized, in fact - and doesn't seem to mind. He just wants to be a chicken.

Eventually, he's joined by another fellow (Michael O'Connell), who may be a kindred spirit, and rethinks the existence he's adopted. Long after the comedic value of his peculiar madness fades, Barnes has us thinking about the extent to which we stifle our individuality along with our discontents.

Later, we're given a simple story about ambition and faithlessness that begins with a trysting couple (Kupper and Maureen Porter) dueling amiably with clever, if familiar, one-liners.

But when we discover the disability they share with the husband (John Steinkamp) who soon arrives unannounced, we know we're in for Pythonesque stuff.

Yet nothing in the production comes close to the outrageous gag in the middle segment, which involves students (Steinkamp and Philip Cuomo) in a martial arts class.

Again, the initial shock of the play's concept subsides after the opening, replaced by intriguing notions about who is entitled to have high expectations and seek personal growth.

The first 10 minutes of the piece may have you laughing despite, or because of, your better judgment. You may laugh harder than you ever have in the theater. You may laugh harder than you've ever laughed in your life.

Much of the credit goes to Third Rail, probably the only company in town with the imagination, and the resources, to have pulled this off.

The troupe, which is performing for the last time at the 99-seat Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center - it will more than double its audience capacity at the downtown World Trade Center Auditorium next season - loves this kind of raucous, highly physical comedy, however shamelessly irreverent. And nobody does it better.

- Eric Bartels

8 p.m. FRIDAY and SATURDAY, 2 p.m. SUNDAY, 8 p.m. Thursday, through May 24, Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N. Interstate Ave., 503-235-1101, www.thirdrailrep.org, $16-$25